Russian pianist's concert cancelled due to visa rules

Ciar Byrne,Arts,Media Correspondent
Friday 11 April 2008 00:00 BST

The Barbican has been forced to cancel a concert by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov because of changes to visa regulations requiring non-EU citizens to provide fingerprints.

Sokolov, 57, was due to perform a programme of Mozart sonatas and Chopin on 10 May at the London concert hall, followed by an appearance at Glasgow's City Hall. But the pianist will no longer travel to the UK, where he has been performing regularly for the past 18 years, because he is unwilling to disrupt his schedule to apply in person for the new biometric visa.

A Russian citizen with Italian residency, Sokolov was told that, after years of someone else applying for a visa on his behalf, he would have to travel from his home in Verona to Rome to provide fingerprints.

The Barbican is concerned that the changes to the visa system could deter other artists from travelling to perform in the UK.

Robert Van Leer, head of music at the Barbican, said: "In the past, Grigory Sokolov has always been able to [apply for a visa] remotely. He hasn't had to go anywhere in person. We're dealing with an artist of the highest sort. He really only does two things. He practises and he goes to concerts and plays."

Mr Van Leer added: "Even if we move past this individual situation, I don't see it as a tenable way of working with artists. We often have artists who are not back in their home country for weeks on end. I'm worried about how we're going to deal with these artists."

Born in St Petersburg, then called Leningrad, in 1950, Sokolov studied at the Leningrad Conservatory. He came to worldwide attention after winning the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition although his career in the West did not start until the late 1980s. He has now developed a loyal following and is known for his wide repertoire, including the music of William Byrd, Francois Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, as well as more mainstream material by Beethoven and Chopin.

A spokeswoman for the pianist said: "He's been coming for the past 18 years and he's never had a problem before. The whole process has become incredibly complicated, time-consuming and difficult.

"Some artists just can't quite handle that sort of intrusion into their music. For someone like Sokolov, who languished behind the Iron Curtain for years and his career in the West started very late, having suffered at the hands of that regime, to find all this obstruction to playing in a country he's played in for 18 years is very distressing."

A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "Fingerprint visas are an integral part of making sure we maintain a strong border. To date we have used fingerprints to match more than 13,000 visa applicants to UK immigration and asylum records and identified hundreds of identity fraudsters. Everybody who needs a biometric visa to enter the UK must provide fingerprints."

The visa regulations are soon due to change again to a points-based system, raising more concerns over the cost of entry to the UK for classical musicians, who are often poorly paid. Atholl Swainston-Harrison of the International Artist Managers' Association, said: "Our concern is that, in the classical music world, many acts are not well-paid. With the cost of a visa, it's not going to be worth coming to the UK." Iama is campaigning for visas to be extended from one year to two to cut costs.

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